2016 has been a bit lacking for me - I've missed those truly great reads that warrant my giving the full 5 out of 5 stars. But comparing this year with last, the very good reads - the 4 out of 5 stars - they were there, and in the same-ish quantity. So, here's a bit of praise for the very good, the nearly perfect, but not quites.
In the last week, I've read two: Slade House by David Mitchell and The Children Act by Ian McEwan - both authors being old favourites of mine. Each has previously appeared in my 4 or 5 star rated reads - and neither book let me down, even though I'd put off their reading feeling sure that's what would happen. It was extremely silly of me, especially as both were very short reads - neither being over 250 pages.
We'll start with Mr Mitchell. The first book of his I read was his masterpiece "Cloud Atlas" which I found truly perplexing, but was unable to put down. I suspect I'm due a re-read. I can't pen a better review of "Slade House" than Warwick from Goodreads, who said: "Mitchell does his usual thing of writing a few short stories, gluing them together, and calling it a novel. He gets away with it because he is just so extravagantly readable".
My own review kept away from the central characters - the Grayers, the soul-eaters who appear every 9 years having invited suitable "guests" to visit their home, which also appears only every 9 years - but that's because writing about people is what Mitchell does best. He tells the story of each of those guests, so that you really know them, in some cases really care about them and what inevitably happens. This story is genuinely creepy - which is not my kind of thing - but I really liked it nevertheless.
Then on to Mr McEwan. Prize-winner, a member of the UK literary glitterati, regularly included on the Booker lists. The back-cover blurb on "The Children Act" made it sound like it could end up slipping into the saccharine. But it didn't.
It was loaded with so much that was obvious: children being pulled back and forth by their parents, in divorce courts, in the practice of their religion; the law being a weapon to to protect them, to do what is best for the welfare of the child; that law being in the hands of a childless judge, one who's marriage is crumbling. And yet.
As with Mitchell, McEwan can really write. We aren't allowed to avoid the complexities, we are forced to step over the trite, we are made to accept that life can be bloody and happy endings aren't always satisfactory.
So, am I practising gratitude because the year is ending and I haven't found a perfect book? OK, I am, a little bit. But I genuinely liked these two books. I didn't expect to - the McEwan in particular. And yet I did. In both cases, the writing is such a thing of beauty that I really, really wanted to keep on reading. And when they were over, I missed them. And if that's not the sign of a very good book, I don't know what is.